It’s a Tuesday afternoon in the U.S., and Declan Rice is excited to be here. “Very excited,” actually, he says. “Here” does not necessarily mean the preseason American tour where he made his Arsenal debut in front of a sellout crowd at D.C. United’s Audi Field. The Gunners’ newly minted £105 million ($133.2 million) transfer from West Ham, now the most expensive British player of all time, is referring to his new London club. “It’s been a big transition the last couple of days,” Rice says. “Obviously used to one way of playing and coaching for so long. So to now come to a new manager, new team, new ideas … I’ve learned so much already.”

He’s not the only Arsenal player entering the season with some newfound knowledge. The 2023–23 season was a wild ride for a team that began to reach its potential far earlier than expected, then faded down the stretch.

It was also the culmination of a rebuild of dramatic proportion and bold commitment to its manager and players. Now, after a season where the team’s young core learned what it took to be one of the world’s best was followed by an offseason of key additions, Arsenal appears poised to take over.

Mikel Arteta, the midfielder, and Arsenal always seemed like the right fit. It was Arteta who arrived just after an 8–2 thrashing at the hands of Manchester United in Matchweek 3 of the 2011–12 season and effectively settled the midfield. It was the Spaniard who grew close to then manager Arsène Wenger, was named captain in his fourth season with the squad and gave an emotional farewell after his final match with the Gunners.

So it seemed almost inevitable that Mikel Arteta, the manager, would find his way back to north London. And it didn’t take long. Arteta immediately joined Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City staff after his playing career finished, and after Arsenal passed on him in the summer of 2018 in favor of Unai Emery, the job was open again just 18 months later. This time, both club and coach were ready.

Arteta inherited a squad filled with transfer-market misses and academy products who weren’t quite ready for the big stage. But just as Arteta had a stabilizing effect on Arsenal when he arrived as a player in 2011, his return as a manager did, too. Arsenal lost just two of its next 16 matches and climbed from 12th to eighth in the league.

Arteta’s ethos was about building a unified front from the start. It’s why, when the Gunners were 15th in the league table in December 2020, there was no bending to the will of the pressure cooker of public perception. It’s why three successive goalless losses to start the ’21–22 campaign weren’t followed by a panicked dismissal of the coaching staff. And it’s why the trusting of young players—namely Gabriel Martinelli and Saka—helped turn an inexperienced squad into a youthful powerhouse.

Martinelli says he knew they were building to something special during the 2021–22 season. He once claimed Arsenal would soon be one of the best teams in the world. Martinelli’s prophecy took time and patience, and it still has some way to go. But it’s under Arteta’s tutelage that it is happening, through a balance of structure and flexibility, of tactical innovation and creativity.

“He gives you freedom to do what you are good at,” Martinelli says. “He’s so good at this. He always tries to play us … where we can be more dangerous.” Arsenal’s commitment to its former player turned manager finally paid dividends last season. It was clear late in his playing career and in his stint with Manchester City that Arteta had the mind to be a top-level manager (Guardiola, the great tactician himself, said recently, “Maybe I learned more off him than he did off me.”) After three years of squad building, Arteta’s tactical innovations could be unleashed.

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